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- History of the United Netherlands, 1585-86 - 1/12 -


The Earl of Leicester--His Triumphal Entrance into Holland--English Spies about him--Importance of Holland to England--Spanish Schemes for invading England--Letter of the Grand Commander--Perilous Position of England--True Nature of the Contest--wealth and Strength of the Provinces--Power of the Dutch and English People--Affection of the Hollanders for the Queen--Secret Purposes of Leicester-- Wretched condition of English Troops--The Nassaus and Hohenlo--The Earl's Opinion of them--Clerk and Killigrew--Interview with the States Government General offered to the Earl--Discussions on the Subject--The Earl accepts the Office--His Ambition and Mistakes--His Installation at the Hague--Intimations of the Queen's Displeasure-- Deprecatory Letters of Leicester--Davison's Mission to England-- Queen's Anger and Jealousy--Her angry Letters to the Earl and the States--Arrival of Davison--Stormy Interview with the Queen--The second one is calmer--Queen's Wrath somewhat mitigated--Mission of Heneago to the States--Shirley sent to England by the Earl--His Interview with Elizabeth

At last the Earl of Leicester came. Embarking at Harwich, with a fleet of fifty ships, and attended "by the flower and chief gallants of England"--the Lords Sheffield, Willoughby, North, Burroughs, Sir Gervase Clifton, Sir William Russell, Sir Robert Sidney, and others among the number--the new lieutenant-general of the English forces in the Netherlands arrived on the 19th December, 1585, at Flushing.

His nephew, Sir Philip Sidney, and Count Maurice of Nassau, with a body of troops and a great procession of civil functionaries; were in readiness to receive him, and to escort him to the lodgings prepared for him.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was then fifty-four years of age. There are few personages in English history whose adventures, real or fictitious, have been made more familiar to the world than his have been, or whose individuality has been presented in more picturesque fashion, by chronicle, tragedy, or romance. Born in the same day of the month and hour of the day with the Queen, but two years before her birth, the supposed synastry of their destinies might partly account, in that age of astrological superstition, for the influence which he perpetually exerted. They had, moreover, been fellow-prisoners together, in the commencement of the reign of Mary, and it is possible that he may have been the medium through which the indulgent expressions of Philip II. were conveyed to the Princess Elizabeth.

His grandfather, John Dudley, that "caterpillar of the commonwealth," who lost his head in the first year of Henry VIII. as a reward for the grist which he brought to the mill of Henry VII.; his father, the mighty Duke of Northumberland, who rose out of the wreck of an obscure and ruined family to almost regal power, only to perish, like his predecessor, upon the scaffold, had bequeathed him nothing save rapacity, ambition, and the genius to succeed. But Elizabeth seemed to ascend the throne only to bestow gifts upon her favourite. Baronies and earldoms, stars and garters, manors and monopolies, castles and forests, church livings and college chancellorships, advowsons and sinecures, emoluments and dignities, the most copious and the most exalted, were conferred upon him in breathless succession. Wine, oil, currants, velvets, ecclesiastical benefices, university headships, licences to preach, to teach, to ride, to sail, to pick and to steal, all brought "grist to his mill." His grandfather, "the horse leach and shearer," never filled his coffers more rapidly than did Lord Robert, the fortunate courtier. Of his early wedlock with the ill-starred Amy Robsart, of his nuptial projects with the Queen, of his subsequent marriages and mock-marriages with Douglas Sheffield and Lettice of Essex, of his plottings, poisonings, imaginary or otherwise, of his countless intrigues, amatory and political--of that luxuriant, creeping, flaunting, all-pervading existence which struck its fibres into the mould, and coiled itself through the whole fabric, of Elizabeth's life and reign--of all this the world has long known too much to render a repetition needful here. The inmost nature and the secret deeds of a man placed so high by wealth and station, can be seen but darkly through the glass of contemporary record. There was no tribunal to sit upon his guilt. A grandee could be judged only when no longer a favourite, and the infatuation of Elizabeth for Leicester terminated only with his life. He stood now upon the soil of the Netherlands in the character of a "Messiah," yet he has been charged with crimes sufficient to send twenty humbler malefactors to the gibbet. "I think," said a most malignant arraigner of the man, in a published pamphlet, "that the Earl of Leicester hath more blood lying upon his head at this day, crying for vengeance, than ever had private man before, were he never so wicked."

Certainly the mass of misdemeanours and infamies hurled at the head of the favourite by that "green-coated Jesuit," father Parsons, under the title of 'Leycester's Commonwealth,' were never accepted as literal verities; yet the value of the precept, to calumniate boldly, with the certainty that much of the calumny would last for ever, was never better illustrated than in the case of Robert Dudley. Besides the lesser delinquencies of filling his purse by the sale of honours and dignities, by violent ejectments from land, fraudulent titles, rapacious enclosures of commons, by taking bribes for matters of justice, grace, and supplication to the royal authority, he was accused of forging various letters to the Queen, often to ruin his political adversaries, and of plottings to entrap them into conspiracies, playing first the comrade and then the informer. The list of his murders and attempts to murder was almost endless. "His lordship hath a special fortune," saith the Jesuit, "that when he desireth any woman's favour, whatsoever person standeth in his way hath the luck to die quickly." He was said to have poisoned Alice Drayton, Lady Lennox, Lord Sussex, Sir Nicholas Throgmorton, Lord Sheffield, whose widow he married and then poisoned, Lord Essex, whose widow he also married, and intended to poison, but who was said to have subsequently poisoned him--besides murders or schemes for murder of various other individuals, both French and English. "He was a rare artist in poison," said Sir Robert Naunton, and certainly not Caesar Borgia, nor his father or sister, was more accomplished in that difficult profession than was Dudley, if half the charges against him could be believed. Fortunately for his fame, many of them were proved to be false. Sir Henry Sidney, lord deputy of Ireland, at the time of the death of Lord Essex, having caused a diligent inquiry to be made into that dark affair, wrote to the council that it was usual for the Earl to fall into a bloody flux when disturbed in his mind, and that his body when opened showed no signs of poison. It is true that Sir Henry, although an honourable man, was Leicester's brother-in-law, and that perhaps an autopsy was not conducted at that day in Ireland on very scientific principles.

His participation in the strange death of his first wife was a matter of current belief among his contemporaries. "He is infamed by the death of his wife," said Burghley, and the tale has since become so interwoven with classic and legendary fiction, as well as with more authentic history, that the phantom of the murdered Amy Robsart is sure to arise at every mention of the Earl's name. Yet a coroner's inquest--as appears from his own secret correspondence with his relative and agent at Cumnor --was immediately and persistently demanded by Dudley. A jury was impannelled--every man of them a stranger to him, and some of them enemies. Antony Forster, Appleyard, and Arthur Robsart, brother-in-law and brother of the lady, were present, according to Dudley's special request; "and if more of her friends could have been sent," said he, "I would have sent them;" but with all their minuteness of inquiry, "they could find," wrote Blount, "no presumptions of evil," although he expressed a suspicion that "some of the jurymen were sorry that they could not." That the unfortunate lady was killed by a fall down stairs was all that could be made of it by a coroner's inquest, rather hostile than otherwise, and urged to rigorous investigation by the supposed culprit himself. Nevertheless, the calumny has endured for three centuries, and is likely to survive as many more.

Whatever crimes Dudley may have committed in the course of his career, there is no doubt whatever that he was the most abused man in Europe. He had been deeply wounded by the Jesuit's artful publication, in which all the misdeeds with which he was falsely or justly charged were drawn up in awful array, in a form half colloquial, half judicial. "You had better give some contentment to my Lord Leicester," wrote the French envoy from London to his government, "on account of the bitter feelings excited in him by these villainous books lately written against him."

The Earl himself ascribed these calumnies to the Jesuits, to the Guise faction, and particularly to--the Queen of Scots. He was said, in consequence, to have vowed an eternal hatred to that most unfortunate and most intriguing Princess. "Leicester has lately told a friend," wrote Charles Paget, "that he will persecute you to the uttermost, for that he supposeth your Majesty to be privy to the setting forth of the book against him." Nevertheless, calumniated or innocent he was at least triumphant over calumny. Nothing could shake his hold upon Elizabeth's affections. The Queen scorned but resented the malignant attacks upon the reputation of her favourite. She declared "before God and in her conscience, that she knew the libels against him to be most scandalous, and such as none but an incarnate devil himself could dream to be true." His power, founded not upon genius nor virtue, but upon woman's caprice, shone serenely above the gulf where there had been so many shipwrecks. "I am now passing into another world," said Sussex, upon his death-bed, to his friends, "and I must leave you to your fortunes; but beware of the gipsy, or he will be too hard for you. You know not the beast so well as I do."

The "gipsy," as he had been called from his dark complexion, had been renowned in youth for the beauty of his person, being "tall and singularly well-featured, of a sweet aspect, but high foreheaded, which was of no discommendation," according to Naunton. The Queen, who had the passion of her father for tall and proper men, was easier won by externals, from her youth even to the days of her dotage, than befitted so very sagacious a personage. Chamberlains, squires of the body, carvers, cup-bearers, gentlemen-ushers, porters, could obtain neither place nor favour at court, unless distinguished for stature, strength, or extraordinary activity. To lose a tooth had been known to cause the loss of a place, and the excellent constitution of leg which helped Sir Christopher Hatton into the chancellorship, was not more remarkable perhaps than the success of similar endowments in other contemporaries. Leicester, although stately and imposing, had passed his summer solstice. A big bulky man, with a long red face, a bald head, a defiant somewhat sinister eye, a high nose, and a little torrent of foam-white curly beard, he was still magnificent in costume. Rustling in satin and feathers, with jewels in his ears, and his velvet toque stuck as airily as ever upon the side of his head, he amazed the honest Hollanders, who had been used to less gorgeous chieftains.

"Every body is wondering at the great magnificence and splendour of his clothes," said the plain chronicler of Utrecht. For, not much more than a year before, Fulke Greville had met at Delft a man whose external adornments were simpler; a somewhat slip-shod personage, whom he thus pourtrayed: "His uppermost garment was a gown," said the euphuistic Fulke, "yet such as, I confidently affirm, a mean-born student of our Inns of Court would not have been well disposed to walk the streets in. Unbuttoned his doublet was, and of like precious matter and form to the other. His waistcoat, which showed itself under it, not unlike the best sort of those woollen knit ones which our ordinary barge-watermen row us in. His company about him, the burgesses of that beerbrewing town. No external sign of degree could have discovered the inequality of his worth or estate from that multitude. Nevertheless, upon conversing with him,

History of the United Netherlands, 1585-86 - 1/12

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